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Will The Upcoming US-North Korean Summit be Successful? 3 Reasons to be Cautious

By Ruben Tavenier

It seems like North Korea has made a 180 degree turn in its behavior, in comparison to not more than half a year ago. Powerful images of North and South Korean leaders holding hands on the demilitarized zone, while both leading the other respectfully into their own country show a strong signal of rapprochement. Rhetoric has become more constructive, and signs of good will are carefully but consciously being made. For example, South-Korea has dismantled the iconic propaganda-blasting speakers placed at its border with North Korea, and overall relations between North Korea, the United States and South Korea has improved significantly. Perhaps most significantly, North Korea has announced that it is willing to denuclearize, juxtaposing its former nuclear policy. Moreover, the apparent success of high level talks between US and North Korean officials have paved the way for a face to face meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, scheduled to take place in May. Although this historical meeting between the two leaders can be seen as a success on its own, there are several hurdles to overcome before this meeting can produce beneficial outcomes for all parties involved.

Firstly, the perceived willingness of Kim Jong Un to denuclearize is not historically unique [1]. Diplomatic negotiations regarding North Korea’s nuclear program date back to 1985, and have seen varying degrees of success. In 1994, the US-North Korean Agreed Framework was signed by both parties, which entailed that North Korea had to freeze the operations and constructions of nuclear reactors. In turn, it would receive two proliferation-resistant reactors, as well as oil from the US to help construct these two reactors. An international association was established to carry out the agreement [2]. However, new missile tests, and intelligence that revealed North Korea’s intentions to develop their uranium enrichment program caused for the agreement to break down in 2002. Similarly, North Korea agreed to halt their nuclear activities and abandon their current nuclear weapons in 2005, as a result of the Six-Party talks. However, after tensions had risen and more missile tests were conducted, North Korea declared that it would abandon all agreements made under the Six-Party talks in 2009 [3]. This rather poor record of North Korea’s ability to abide by the agreements that have been made provides plausible reason to doubt its currently stated willingness to abandon its nuclear program. North Korea has made similar promises to the ones it is making today, but in all the cases where it has done so, it has failed to uphold these promises.

Secondly, a successful summit depends on how success in this case is defined, and both leaders do not appear to be on the same page. The North Korean vision of what success looks like, might be more complex than what the US has in mind. For the US, the best possible result would be for North Korea to completely halt its nuclear program and missile tests, whilst allowing inspections to prevent a repetition of what happened in 1994 and 2005, and maintaining their military presence in the region, most notably in South Korea [4]. However, North Korean officials have repeatedly stated over the last couple of years that it would be willing to denuclearize under the condition that the perceived threat of US presence is relieved. Once this threat is eliminated, and North Korea feels secure, then it would consider denuclearization over a span of ten to twenty years [5]. It seems unlikely that Kim Jong Un would agree with unconditional denuclearization, just as it is unlikely that he would give up its nuclear card for a low price such as relief of sanctions. Both parties seem to have high expectations of the summit, but the divergent positions on how to come to an agreement make any agreement, let alone one where denuclearization is established, very unlikely. The high expectations might just enhance feelings of failure if no denuclearization deal is made. Therefore, lowering the expectations of the summit might be beneficial for the negotiations [6].

Building forward on the assumption that a grand denuclearization deal is out of the question uncovers a third issue with the upcoming summit. The high expectations and the divergent positions will bring about two possible outcomes, both significantly more viable than a grand deal. Firstly, no deal could be struck at all. The US and North Korea might still be too far apart for a deal to be struck. North Korea would benefit more from this scenario than the US would. If this plays out, North Korea’s legitimacy as nuclear power will have increased, because they were able to bring another major nuclear power to the table. Hence, North Korea’s status as nuclear power will implicitly be recognized. North Korea has sought to normalize its position as nuclear power, and this meeting, whether it fails or not, will certainly do so [5]. Moreover, if no deal can be struck, the failed meeting will be the representation of failed diplomacy, and the US might resort to other options [6].

Another scenario would be one where Trump, because he has the biggest incentive of the two, is overly eager to make a deal, which can then be portrayed as a victory. High expectations might pressure the American president to come to an agreement with its North Korean counterpart, even if the outcome is not what was initially desired by the US. Kim Jong Un might entice Trump by promising to abolish his intercontinental missile program and thus eliminate the threat that it poses to the US; a deal which might seem very attractive to Trump [7]. Trump will have the chance to be the president that has eliminated the nuclear threat of North Korea, but he will have to pay a high price for this which, in the form of decreasing or removing his military presence around North Korea, will likely damage his alliance with South Korea and Japan. Because of the high expectations, Trump is at risk of overpaying for a deal that does not even provide a solution for the current crisis with North Korea.

There are serious hurdles that need to be considered for the summit, such as North Korea’s poor historical record when it comes to upholding nuclear agreements. Additionally, too high expectations and the pressure to close a deal no matter what, or too divergent positions which lead to the inability to close any deal at all. However, as many skeptical analysts have argued, there might be a deal to be made, albeit smaller than expected, with aims far more limited than complete denuclearization. Any step to resolving this crisis by peaceful means is commendable, and this summit could be a step in the right direction, only if the obstacles and difficulties duly are taken into consideration.

[1] https://www.vox.com/2018/4/19/...
[2] https://www.armscontrol.org/fa...
[3] https://www.armscontrol.org/fa...
[4] https://www.vox.com/2018/4/18/...
[5] https://www.brookings.edu/blog...
[6] https://www.brookings.edu/blog...
[7] https://www.economist.com/news...